The phrase "out of pocket" is often used in my office to mean "unavailable". I've found reference to this on the internet as well, but no obvious clue to where this meaning comes from.

Where does this particular meaning come from?

  • Does your reference not explain this? – Andrew Leach May 23 '12 at 13:33
  • 1
    @AndrewLeach I don't think so. It just assumes that it was derived from the accounting term. I find it equally likely that it is a conflation with "out of band", which has a more accurate meaning. – C. Ross May 23 '12 at 13:56
  • 1
    These are two interesting blogs (not recent, but maybe when this phrase first began being commonly used this way). You'll see theories ranging from it being based on football terminology to nautical terminology to accounting terminology to reporters-in-the-field-being-unreachable terminology. hubbub.typepad.com/blog/2006/10/office_talk_out.html grammarphobia.com/blog/2007/05/out-of-pocket.html – JLG May 23 '12 at 13:59
  • @JLG Can you add an answer with this content? – C. Ross May 23 '12 at 14:01
  • 1
    I first heard the expression out-of-pocket from a native Texan in the mid 1980s. He used it to mean "unavailable". When I questioned him about the term he said that it was a regional expression. – user30199 Oct 31 '12 at 21:37

The Oxford English Dictionary says out of pocket meaning "out of reach, absent, unavailable" dates back to the US of the early 20th century:

1908 ‘O. Henry’ Buried Treasure in Ainslee's July 69/2 Just now she is out of pocket. And I shall find her as soon as I can.

  • 1
    wth was wrong with O. Henry that he made this up out of nowhere. smh. – Randy L Jun 21 '15 at 15:20
  • @the0ther: O. Henry probably didn't make it up, but is just the first one we know who'd written it down somewhere. Others most likely had already been using it in speech, and others may have written it down too. – Hugo Jun 22 '15 at 9:56
  • For what it's worth, "out of pocket" written usage spiked way up around 1915-1925, about 7 years after O. Henry's usage. See Google Books Ngram Viewer books.google.com/ngrams – Rob Bednark Nov 9 '16 at 22:28

It's a novel use of a metaphoric idiom (with, needless to say, odd syntax).

Happens all the time, though this is the first I've heard this one. Where is this office located?

X is out of pocket normally means that expense has been occurred by X. Who is out of pocket? asks who incurred any expense; Geoff is out of pocket for this claims that Geoff was responsible for paying for this; If you wind up out of pocket, see me about payment is an invitation to submit a voucher for reimbursement. Needless to say, the money is currently unavailable to X.

The metaphor is that money comes out of one's pocket. The odd syntax is to say that the person is out of pocket instead of the money. But it's a fixed phrase and they do get weird.

In the usage cited, X is out of pocket has apparently been reinterpreted, with pocket being metaphorized as X's office rather than X's money -- money (and debt and responsibility) have disappeared entirely from the meaning. And it's X that's unavailable, not X's money.

Very interesting. Thank you.

  • 1
    Do you have any cites for this, or is this your conjecture? Not a criticism, just asking for information. – JeffSahol May 23 '12 at 13:50
  • South East USA. – C. Ross May 23 '12 at 13:54
  • Like I said, I never heard of this before. I guess you could call it conjecture, though, since metaphor is one of my specialties. If you want citations about how metaphors (not this metaphor) work, try this one or this one or this one. – John Lawler May 23 '12 at 13:59
  • 1
    I hear this commonly. If you think of out of pocket in a fiscal sense as "on your own", then it doesn't seem to big a stretch to me to see out of pocket in a physical sense as out there on your own and unreachable. – mikeY Aug 20 '12 at 17:17

I believe that the phrase out of pocket meaning “unavailable” has its origin in cell phone use. Being out of pocket meant being in an area where no cell tower was available, and therefore when out of pocket one was unreachable. For many years, there were many regional pockets not covered by the cellular telephone network. Martha’s Vineyard for years was notorious for lack of cell phone service. Thus, business executives traveling to Martha’s Vineyard would find themselves out of pocket. This cell-phone-specific meaning later morphed into using the phrase out of pocket to mean generally “unavailable, unreachable”.

  • 2
    Do you have any evidence to back this up? – C. Ross Aug 26 '12 at 17:20
  • Never heard this before. Is it a US usage? – Wudang Aug 26 '12 at 18:19
  • Even without citations, I think this usage makes the most sense when you think of a "pocket" being a region with cellphone coverage. Even though cellphones didn't exist in O. Henry's day, it may have just been a co-opted term since the advent of cellphones. – AlishahNovin Nov 26 '14 at 20:07
  • This expression also common with some U.S. military personnel to indicate unavailability. – Mark Mullin Apr 15 '16 at 14:10
  • It has nothing to do with cell phone usage. It's usage began in the early 20th century. – Gibraltar Mar 31 '18 at 7:02

It means something is paid from personal funds.

Somehow "out of pocket" has become a new business catchphrase meaning "unreachable, out of communication", "unavailable", which is incorrect.

Correct use is:

My doctor's office refuses to bill insurance companies any more, so I was out of pocket for the entire payment until I did all of the paperwork myself for reimbursement.

  • 2
    You don't answer the question. I know what the correct meaning is, I'd like to know where the newer/incorrect one came from. – C. Ross May 23 '12 at 13:54
  • Probably just the inverse of "in the pocket", meaning that you have something already. – kristof_w May 23 '12 at 13:56
  • 1
    I don't see how you can say that using an idiom with a certain meaning is "wrong". Many people use it with this meaning -- I hear this all the time. I think the definition of a word or phrase is what most people understand it to mean, by definition. – Jay May 23 '12 at 14:35
  • Hmm, "incorrect" may be a bit harsh, I agree. I just meant to say that it's not what it originally meant. – kristof_w May 23 '12 at 15:01
  • This is literally copied verbatim from it's corresponding Urban Dictionary entry. – Josh Mar 19 '15 at 21:35

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.